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Sacred Places/Civic Purposes

  • Brookings Institution

    American Charter Project Conference

    Freedom of Religion and Conscience: Restoring Civility, Protecting Pluralism

    September 13, 2017


    Text prepared for delivery as KEYNOTE ADDRESS:

    Religious Polarization in America Today: A Puzzle, a Prescription, and a Prayer


    John J. DiIulio, Jr.

    First Director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

    Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society

    University of Pennsylvania

    Nonresident Senior Fellow in Governance Studies

    The Brookings Institution


    Thank you so very kindly, Bill.  

    I’m grateful to my old friend and colleague, Dr. Byron Johnson of Baylor University, to you, Bill, and to the other co-chairs of the American Charter Project, my old friend Dr. Jacqueline Rivers and the eminent Os Guiness, for inviting me to participate.

    It’s a special treat being here at Brookings. On off over the past three decades, Brookings has been for me a home away from home on government reform, healthcare administration, and—the topic that brings us together today—religion in the public square.

    Indeed, back in the 1990s and 2000s, Brookings birthed several major conferences and publications, including one White House-organized event, on church-state relations, faith-based initiatives, and the civic role of sacred places.  

    One of those Brookings books was a volume co-edited by the great E.J. Dionne and (bringing up the rear) me. Published in 2000, it was entitled: What’s God Got to Do with the American Experiment?  E.J. and I began it with these words:  

    One could imagine the question posed in the title of this book [--What’s God got to do with the American experiment?--] provoking two legions to mass against each other.  

    They’d offer sharply different accounts of the role of God and organized religion in creating and nurturing the American experiment.  

    In one view, it is America’s pluralistic and secular Constitution that has promoted freedom, diversity, and, oddly, the very strength of American religious communities…

    In the other account, freedom itself is rooted in a theistic—many would say Judeo-Christian—commitment to the inviolable dignity of the individual human being.  

    This argument is as old as our republic, and in truth the two views are not mutually exclusive.

    Today, some 17 years after those words were inked, we thank Providence or Probability, have not witnessed “two legions” massing “against each other” at the civic intersection of religion and politics.

    Not yet, anyway.

    But there is simply no denying that, as forthrightly stated in the flyer for today’s event, “bitter polarization along partisan, ideological, and religious lines seems to have become the norm in today’s America,” not least with respect to “the public discourse” regarding religious freedoms, church-state questions, and religious identities.

    Make no mistake: the concerns that motivate the American Charter Project are real. 

    Just last week, Baylor University released a survey probing how Americans view each other, with a section that focused on perceptions of atheists, conservative Christians Jews, and Muslims. The survey’s results were well-summarized by the headline of the story on the survey that ran last week in The Washington Post: 

    Evangelicals fear Muslims; atheists fear Christians: New poll shows how Americans mistrust one another    


    I probably should leave it at “yikes,” but let me address the religious polarization challenge by offering three observations—first, a puzzle, next, a prescription (or two or three), and finally, a prayer.

    The puzzle is how we got to this point.

    People feeling more rabid than reasonable about religion, and a politics that turns religious and cultural differences into fodder for political divisions, is nothing new. We have witnessed worse in the past. For starters, think witch-burning, institutionalized antisemitism, and Nativist anti-Catholicism.

    But the puzzle is that this is happening now, in the early 21st century, and in the wake of several developments of the preceding 15 to 20 years that might have been expected either to make no discernible difference or, if anything, to cut the other way:

    For instance, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s 2010 opus, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, and much other research as well, documents that, since the mid-1960s, Americans’ religious identities have become increasingly fluid. Most adult Americans are more inclined than their parents or grandparents were to know (and marry!) people of other faiths, and more likely to profess, as it were, that there is no one religious path to becoming a good person or to passing through the pearly gates.

    By something of the same token, until fairly recently, most post-2000 national surveys probing Americans attitudes on church-state issues painted a rather decidedly centrist picture.  

    For instance, throughout the 2000s, about two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans supported government funding for faith-based organizations that supply social services, and agreed that religiously motivated social service providers tend to be caring, compassionate, and cost-effective.  

    But that majority support for and positive sentiment toward government funding for faith-based organizations plummeted whenever the proposition extended to funding pervasively sectarian activities or permitting carte blanche accommodations to hire only co-religionists.

    The centrist and moderate court of public opinion on religion in the public square issues was echoed in the courts of law, most particularly in the Supreme Court’s neutrality doctrine approach to interpreting and applying the First Amendment’s two religion clauses. Sometimes the Court issued what were widely perceived as “pro-religion” decisions, as in the 2002 case of Zelman involving school vouchers; other times the Court issued what were generally received as “anti-religion” decisions, as in the 2004 case of Locke involving a scholarship program; but, as I argued in Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future, published in 200, both of those cases, and many others as well, were anchored by the Court’s neutrality jurisprudence.

    On religion in the public square, politicians joined judges in following the election returns to mostly centrist positions.  For instance, for all the controversies that surrounded and hounded the so-called Federal Charitable Choice laws that were first enacted in the 1990s (the first one being in Section 104 of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, better known and debated as the “welfare reform bill”), three successive presidential administrations—two 8-year Democrats sandwiching one 8-year Republican—each partially defied its electoral base and supported faith-based and community initiatives or neighborhood partnerships.

    While we must always expect the politically unexpected, how lukewarm bipartisanship gave way to red-hot conflict is a puzzle.  I have some answers begat by my reading of the latest social science of relevance to the subject; but since social science has been defined as the elaborate demonstration of the obvious by methods that are obscure, I will spare you (unless you ask!)

    As for prescription, I confess before committing the sin that mine is one that only an old American government professor could love; namely, to try taming polarization and tempting civility by preaching and practicing three lessons about religion in the public square bequeathed to us by James Madison.

    Lesson No. 1 is that what Madison in Federalist Paper No. 10 termeda zeal for different opinions concerning religion” feeds dangerous political factions.  

    No faith is beyond faction, and religious pluralism isn’t just what nice, broad-minded people are supposed to profess.

    Rather, religious pluralism is essential to containing if not curing the mischiefs of religiously-fueled factions.  As Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51:

    In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights.  It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.      

    I once gave a mid-term exam asking about Madison’s views on religious pluralism, and one student wrote: “Madison says the way to protect religious rights is for Americans to have lots and lots of sex”—s-e-x.  

    I gave half-credit.

    The second lesson is that religion can be a tremendously and uniquely powerful civic tonic—and a tremendously and uniquely destructive civic toxin; and, both with respect to religion as a broad socio-political force and with respect to religion as manifest in a particular religious denomination, network, or organization, it can be both a civic tonic and a civic toxin at one and the same time.    

    E.J. and I, in the aforementioned Brookings volume, probably owed Madison royalties when we concluded our introductory chapter as follows:

    (Religious faith) can create community, and it can divide communities.  It can lead to searing self-criticism, and it can promote a pompous self-satisfaction.  It can encourage dissent and conformity, generosity and narrow-mindedness…Its very best and very worst forms can be inward-looking.  Religion’s finest hours have been times when intense belief led to social transformation, yet some of its darkest days have entailed the translation of intense belief into the ruthless imposition of orthodoxy.

    Permit me to personalize this just a bit.  I happen to be a Roman Catholic, both by cradle and by choice.  More precisely, if more confusingly, I am a “Born-Again Catholic in the Jesuit Tradition”: My belief in and love for Jesus Christ is not simply my “religious identity;” on a good day, when I am at my best, it infuses every aspect of my life and being.  As I wrote about in the aforementioned Godly Republic, many of those who were most important to my own early mid-life faith journey were not Catholic, including the late, great Philly Pentecostal Pastor Benjamin “Pops” Smith of Deliverance Evangelistic Church.  Still, I especially love the nuns who helped raise and (holding them blameless) educate me.  

    That’s “nuns”—n-u-n-s—not “nones”—n-o-n-e-s—as in the Pew and other surveys showing the rapid post-2007 growth in the number of adults in the U.S.—now about a quarter of the U.S. adult population—who self-identify as atheists or agnostics or say their religion is (quote) “nothing in particular” (…though I’d be perfectly happy if 25 percent of all Americans were Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, or Sisters of Saint Joseph, or the like…)

    But, to be serious, the civic tonic/civic toxin duality is well-illustrated by my own church.  For example, just last November, the Penn Program for Research on Religion and Civil Society—known as PRRUCS—released a superb report documenting how the Philadelphia Catholic Church’s contributions to the Philly region’s economy totals about $4.2 billion annually, greater than the City’s $4 billion general fund budget, and concentrated in services to low-income children, youth, and families, the inform elderly, the dying, and others in need—people of all faiths and people of no faith.  The Archdiocese’s summer food and nutrition program alone is a miracle of care and compassion.  

    That was 2016, but just under a year earlier in 2015, the same program co-sponsored a conference on the 10th anniversary of the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report on Child Sex Abuse in the Archdiocese.  It is hard to fathom how the self-same religious body that has done, and continues to do, so much that is so very good could also enable so much that is so very bad.  

    But thus it is, and there is no blinking at either reality.

    In part because religion has been recognized as both a uniquely powerful civic tonic and a uniquely powerful civic toxin, the Supreme Court has, rightly in my view, effectively singled religion out—out from philosophy, out from other belief systems and non-religious “isms”—for both special benefits and special burdens.  

    By the same token, debates over issues like Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRAs, are, or ought to be, at least somewhat agonizing for each person engaged in them because the very same rights and accommodations that can be essential to personal freedom of conscience, institutional religious freedom, and great good works that benefit people of all faiths and of no faith—the very same rights and accommodations that equip and empower religious institutions to turn spiritual capital into social capital, to generate significant pro-social effects, and to create economic halo effects for people of all faiths and of no faith—can also sometimes be used not merely to duly exempt religious believers from public laws and regulations to which they would otherwise be bound, but to dangerously privilege certain beliefs and discriminatory practices while shielding individuals and institutions from being held accountable or, as in the child sex abuse cases, ever being brought to justice.  

    Bill Galston is an expert on so many things, including the thought of the late, great Oxford don, Sir Isaiah Berlin.  As Bill will know, one of Berlin’s favorite borrowed sayings was “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnow.” As evident in his introductory essay to the 2002 edition of Liberty (edited by Henry Hardy), Berlin was ever at pains to caution against what he in that essay termed “the ancient doctrine according to which all truly good things are linked to one another in a single, perfect whole; or, at the very least, cannot be incompatible with one another.”  

    Berlin was the intellectual patron saint of an understanding of pluralism that stopped far short of relativism. With respect to religious pluralism, Berlin’s thought, or so I think, holds many critical lessons, but let me highlight just two.

    First, the books of this Isaiah teach that to be a good citizen in a demographically diverse democratic republic does not require civic nobility, but it does preclude civic narcissism; it does not require active ecumenism, but it does require at least a little active empathy. Thus, I may be a Catholic of a particular stripe (and, as I have suggested, perhaps of a particularly strange stripe!), but there are Catholics of many other stripes; and not only Catholics, but Quakers, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Buddhists, Methodists, Muslims, Mormons, Anglicans, atheists, agnostics, Presbyterians, pagans, Pentecostals, New Agers, n-o-n-e-s nones, and many scores more.

    The second lesson from my favorite Oxford don is that, whether Enlightenment or Counter-Enlightenment, whether Reformation or Counter-Reformation, any orthodoxy is as it does. For our purposes, the point to remember is that orthodox religion—orthodox sectarianism—is no more or less inevitably and invariably anti-pluralist than orthodox secularism is or can be.  

    And, indeed, a healthy to heavenly respect for the fact that we cannot “have it all,” that while on this earth we must make, we cannot avoid making, morally challenging choices and tradeoffs (not just between good and bad or desirable and undesirable things, but among and between competing deeply held values and good things); that a well-lived, self-aware human life is a life full of mysteries—as in truths that nobody can fully understand—such an understanding is a theological core of many great religions.  

    Hence, prescriptively in relation to religious polarization, or polarization surrounding religion, it’s the third lesson, one derived more from certain parts of Madison’s friendship life than from any words he wrote, that might be our most timely and important lesson; namely, the need to entertain as sympathetically as possible ideas and values related to religious freedom and church-state relations that one is for whatever reasons inclined to strongly reject as wrongheaded, wrong-hearted, or worse. Consider two leaders who Madison knew well and respected lots, but who had quite distinct views on religion in the public square.  

    On one arm, Madison had his main College of New Jersey mentor, the Reverend John Witherspoon, a Scotch Presbyterian minister whom Madison affectionately called the “Old Doctor.” Witherspoon tutored Madison to believe that no republic could survive without orthodox religion, and that the only religion that could reliably supply the civic virtue necessary to sustain a republic was orthodox Christianity. The Reverend also maintained that civil magistrates should all be cut exclusively from Christian religious cloth and be empowered to “punish impiety.”  

    But on his other arm, Madison had his dear mentor, friend, and fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson. Although by no means anti-religious in any meaningful way, Jefferson’s own religious views tended toward deism. His famous “wall of separation” metaphor, though rather widely misinterpreted down to our own day, nonetheless reflected a perspective on religion in the public square that the “Old Doctor” never would have countenanced.

    In the end, Madison sided more closely with Jefferson, but he appreciated and respected what Witherspoon believed. (Madison did get rather fed up and frustrated with Patrick Henry’s brand of religious conservatism—but that is another story!)

    So, what would Madison have us do? 

    In preface to my concluding prayer, let me offer three terribly homely suggestions.

    First, without romanticizing our own recent and imperfect past, let’s recognize that many late 20th and early 21st century political leaders in each party have been mostly if not always entirely reasonable, well-informed, and well-balanced in their views on religion in the public square.

    For instance, harken back to 2000’s presidential contenders.  In May 1999, Vice President Al Gore spoke about how America’s “severest challenges are not just material, but spiritual.”  “I believe strongly,” he said, “in the separation of church and state. But freedom of religion need not mean freedom from religion.

    Two months later, in July 1999, then-Governor George W. Bush spoke about America’s “armies of compassion”: “We will,” he said, “keep a commitment to pluralism, not discriminating for or against Methodists or Mormons or Muslims, or good people of no faith at all. Government cannot be replaced by charities, but it must welcome them as partners, not resent them as rivals.

    Second, let’s try to be as fact-based about faith-based matters as one can feasibly be, and let’s also open ourselves to hearing each other out on given religious freedom and church-state issues.  

    For instance, two of my great friends and colleagues, Professor Marci Hamilton and Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies, together they head the Common Good for Common Ground project under the auspices of the aforementioned Penn Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society.  

    Read Marci’s 2014 book, God versus the Gavel; and read Stan’s 2015 book, co-authored with the late, great Dr. Steven Monsma, Free to Serve.  

    You can get intellectual whiplash reading these two books back to back and with an open mind; and, after reading them both, you might not change how you think or feel about the issues and values at stake; but you’ll surely understand your own empirical, ethical, and historical premises lots better; and you will possibly see the other side (or sides) of given religious freedom issues a tad more empathetically than you did before.

    You might even become more inclined to treat the “wall of separation” more like what I call the Berlin—as in Sir Isaiah Berlin—Wall of Separation: you take your side, but not without at least occasionally walking around to the other side and listening as sympathetically as possible to what’s being said and felt there.

    And it never hurts to digest and re-digest a couple of significant church-state court cases. Take, for example, the aforementioned cases, Zelman (2002) and Locke (2004). You might love one and loathe the other, or whatnot. But can you find anything at all to like lots in a religion-relevant court opinion that raised your blood pressure—or, by the same token, anything to dislike lots in a court opinion that brought a big smile to your face?  Can you agree or disagree with the holding or dissents while acknowledging the multiple and competing values in play and at stake?  

    Third, celebrate how in a demographically dynamic and diverse representative democracy like ours, the civic intersection of religion and politics, the civic lanes that merge into church-state debates, are bound to be—and ought to be—busy and boisterous, not calm and quiet: honking horns, traffic jams, and indelicate disputes about who has the right of way; occasional confusion about the rules of the road; and accidental fender benders.  But insist that one and all always stop far short of road rage.   

    In his book The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama described religion in the Senate as follows:

    Discussions of faith are rarely heavy-handed within the confines of the Senate.  No one is quizzed on his or her religious affiliation…The Wednesday morning prayer breakfast is entirely optional, bipartisan, and ecumenical (and) the sincerity, openness, humility, and good humor with which even the most overtly religious senators…share their personal faith stories… can sometimes be a ballast against the buffeting words of today’s headlines and political expediency.

    My prayer is that sincerity, openness, humility, and good humor return not only to the Senate but to the wider society; that we find ways to cauterize if not to contain, to rein in if not to reverse, the polarization; and that the American Charter Project and kindred efforts are blessed to make a positive and lasting difference.

    Thank you, and God bless you.